I am a stay-at-home dad and a role model to a community of children under the age of five. The decision to leave my career in pharmaceutical sales two years ago to stay home with our son (15 months at the time) was based on a desire to do what was best for him and for our family, which was embarking on a difficult journey as my wife began her medical residency. When I made the switch, I didn't give much thought to how it would affect the community, but I, and all of the other dads like me, are the male role models that my generation did not have.
I am 36 years old and while there are stories of stay-at-home dads going back to the 60s and 70s, they were few and far between. I was raised in a community south of Detroit with lots of stay-at-home moms, but no stay-at-home dads. Since we are an emerging trend, a lot of people are trying to define what stay-at-home dads are, whether it be in articles, news stories or film and television. Some of these are positive, but judging by the looks on most people’s faces when I tell them I am a stay-at-home dad, we still have a long way to go. More often, they question my ability to nurture a young child, or my ability to run a household, or whether I'm faithful to my wife, rather than asking me how I make it work.
I used to get angry about the questions and looks. For a while I was out to prove that not only could stay-at-home dads be equals with their female counterparts, we were actually better. At some point, I stopped feeling burdened by stereotypes and accepted it as a challenge to reshape them. Further, I realized that winning over moms, grandmas, librarians and gymnastic instructors was less important than winning over my son's peers.
We are hopefully reaching a new precipice in society, as movements like Lean In encourage and help women become leaders. Having men who are capable, caring stay-at-home parents is vital to the progress of women--and society.
Women trying to advance in their careers today feel the push and pull between accelerating their work lives and taking care of their families. Many choose to sacrifice themselves, their careers and their identities for the sake of their families. One of the reasons they may make that choice is that they have doubts about men’s abilities to fill their roles at home. If I, and all the other stay-at-home dads, can involve ourselves in the community of young people and show them that we are at least capable of doing the job, perhaps young women 20 years from now will believe they have a partner capable of taking care of the house. Perhaps 20 years from now, young men will also recognize that they are capable of staying home with the kids.
So to my fellow stay-at-home dads who are struggling in communities where there are only a handful of us, I encourage you to add another responsibility to your daily workload: cultivate great kids to become successful adults and to accept your responsibility as a role model. You have chosen this as your career; you should treat it as you did your previous one.
Here is what I do: In my old job I always looked for new ways to improve one skill set or another (often my employers forced the training on me). While it was sometimes tedious, I acquired new skills and got better at my job. I started doing the same thing as a stay-at-home dad: I watch cooking shows and read parenting magazines. I observe how other parents interact with their children and try to copy techniques I like. Most of all, I read parenting books. There are all sorts of experts that have different styles; find one that works for you and read up on it and then apply it.
Now that my son is a toddler, I find that he is engaging more with his peers. There are times when he wants me involved with him and his playmates, and there are times I stand on the sidelines waiting for disagreements to arise over who had what first. In those times I help bridge the communication gap between children and help them reach a resolution that includes empathy for one another. Whether I am a playmate, a teacher or a disciplinarian I am involved with my son and his peers.
I have never had a toddler question whether I was qualified to interact with them. I have yet to have a toddler ask me when I'm going to get a job. They have never asked my son why his mother wasn’t there. The toddlers accept me for who I am: a parent who cares about his son and the kids he interacts with.
While these toddlers may not realize it now, at some point in their lives when they are making critical career decisions, they may remember that taking full-time responsibility for a family is not a gender issue, and they may even remember an interaction with a stay-at-home dad like me.